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Unbalanced vs. Balanced Cables: Understanding the Difference

October 19, 2023

Unbalanced vs. Balanced Cables: Understanding the Difference

In the world of audio equipment and sound engineering, cables are often overlooked heroes. Yet, they play a crucial role in delivering pristine audio signals from one component to another. Among the many types of cables available, unbalanced and balanced cables stand out as two primary choices. Understanding the differences between them is essential for achieving the best audio quality in any setup.

In this article, we'll explore the distinctions between unbalanced and balanced cables, discussing their design, applications, and the sonic differences that can make or break your audio experience.

What is an unbalanced cable?

Unbalanced cables, often referred to as TS (Tip-Sleeve) or TRS (Tip-Ring-Sleeve) cables, are commonly used for connecting audio devices such as headphones and musical instruments (for example guitars & keyboards). These cables consist of two conductors: a signal wire (the "hot" wire) and a ground wire. The signal wire carries the audio signal, while the ground wire serves as a reference point and shields the signal from interference.

Jack & unbalanced cable

Photo: Unbalanced 6.3mm (“Jack”, left) and balanced XLR Cable (right).

One of the advantages of unbalanced cables is their simplicity and cost-effectiveness. They are widely available and compatible with most audio equipment. However, they are more susceptible to noise and interference over longer cable runs, which can result in audible hums or buzzing in your audio.

What is a balanced cable?

Balanced cables, on the other hand, are designed to minimise interference and provide the best possible audio quality, making them the preferred choice for professional audio applications. These cables consist of three conductors: two signal wires (positive and negative) and a ground wire. The two signal wires carry the audio signal in opposite polarity, which helps cancel out any interference picked up along the way.

Balanced cables use a differential signal, which means that the audio signal is transmitted as the voltage difference between the positive and negative signal wires. This design effectively rejects common-mode noise (noise that appears identically on both wires) and results in a cleaner, noise-free audio signal, even over long cable runs.

Applications and benefits

The choice between unbalanced and balanced cables often depends on the specific audio equipment and the application. Unbalanced cables are suitable for short cable runs and connections between consumer-grade devices. They are cost-effective and easy to find, making them a practical choice for home audio setups.

Balanced cables, on the other hand, shine in professional audio environments. They are commonly used in recording studios, live sound setups, and high-end audio systems. Their ability to reject interference makes them indispensable for critical audio applications, ensuring that the audio signal remains pristine from source to destination.

Studio Monitor Balanced & Unbalanced Connections

Photo: The backplate of a HEDD MK2 Studio Monitor. XLR and AES inputs allow for connecting analog and digital sources.

What is 6dB gain?

In the context of studio monitors or audio equipment, a 6 dB gain usually refers to the ability of the monitor to produce sound at a level that is 6 decibels higher than a reference level. This can be important for audio professionals, such as music producers and engineers, who need precise control over the volume of sound in a studio environment.

When you have a studio monitor with a 6 dB gain, it means that it can produce sound at a level that is 6 dB louder than a reference point. This can be achieved by adjusting the gain control or volume knob on the studio monitor. It allows you to increase the volume for more detailed listening or to match the output level of the studio monitor with other equipment in your studio setup.

It's important to note that a 6 dB gain in studio monitors doesn't necessarily mean that the sound quality or accuracy of the monitor has changed. It simply refers to the monitor's ability to produce sound at a higher volume level when compared to a reference point, which can be useful for monitoring and mixing audio in a studio setting.

Sonic differences

The sonic differences between unbalanced and balanced cables may not be immediately noticeable in all setups. In situations with short cable runs and minimal interference, unbalanced cables can deliver satisfactory audio quality. However, as the cable length increases or when dealing with noisy environments, the benefits of balanced cables become evident.

Balanced cables provide cleaner and more detailed audio, especially in situations where noise could otherwise degrade the signal. This is why they are favoured in professional audio production, where capturing the purest sound is paramount.

The verdict

In the world of audio cables, the choice between unbalanced and balanced cables depends on the specific requirements of your setup. Unbalanced cables are convenient for consumer-grade applications, while balanced cables excel in professional audio environments. Understanding the differences in their design, applications, and sonic characteristics is crucial for achieving the best possible audio quality in your system. Ultimately, the decision between unbalanced and balanced cables should be based on your specific needs and the level of audio quality you demand from your setup. 

All HEDD Audio studio monitors have both balanced (XLR) and AES (to transmit digital signals) connections so you have the freedom to choose which works best for your studio setup.  You can find balanced & unbalanced cables for the HEDDphone here. If you are looking for cabling advice for any other HEDD Audio products then please get in touch

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